DAEGU, South Korea (Reuters) - Teenager Kirani James exploded on to the world stage with a thrilling victory in the 400 metres final to give the tiny Caribbean nation of Grenada its first world championships medal on Tuesday.
Just two days short of his 19th birthday, James nervelessly chased down defending champion LaShawn Merritt on the home straight and surged past the American just before the line to claim the gold medal in a personal best time of 44.60.
“It’s a great feeling, but it’s a great just being here representing my country,” James said. “I was just trying to relax and finish strong.”
Olympic champion Merritt came round the final bend with what looked like a comfortable lead before being beaten by James’s finish, grabbing the teenager around the waist when they had crossed the line in a belated attempt to slow him down.
Merritt, who returned from a 21-month ban for doping in July and set the best time of the year in the first round in Daegu, took his second world championship silver medal in 44.63.
“He’s a great athlete, I just didn’t have a great day,” said the 25-year-old. “44.60, I’ll take it. I‘m back.”
Belgium’s Kevin Borlee, whose twin brother Jonathan finished fifth in the final, claimed bronze in 44.90.
James, the third youngest men’s champion at a world championships, only made his debut as a professional athlete at the Diamond League meeting in London this month after racking up a string of junior titles and records.
Two years ago he broke Usain Bolt’s six-year old CARIFA Games 400m record and he was named his country’s sportsman of the year at the age of 17 after winning the 2010 world junior title.
“He’s not one of those who’s cocky, he would love the attention to be taken away from him, but inside is a drive,” his coach Harvey Glance told Reuters.
“He’s a freak of nature. At 18 he’s the first to make a final and then he goes out and wins the 400 metres. He’s destined for greatness.”
With Merritt still unsure whether he will be able to defend his Olympic title in London and his injured compatriot Jeremy Wariner a fading force, James will be a welcome addition to the 400m.
James’s time was the slowest winning mark in the last four world championships and what fans of the one-lap race really want is a runner who can challenge Michael Johnson’s 12-year-old record of 43.18.
The cool Grenadian said he hoped he would be able to better the mark, but coach Glance was more convinced.
”Very much so, he’s just 18 years old,“ he said. ”When Michael broke his record he must have been 26-27 years old. He’s only going to get faster and stronger.
”He really wants to put his country on the map.
“We want to rewrite history, in his own way, not in the way of Michael Johnson or Butch Reynolds, he just wants to be Kirani James.”
Additional reporting by Gene Cherry, editing by Ed Osmond